By Brett Steenbarger
There is a very simple measure of the health and culture of any team or organization: its energy level. Among high-energy groups, we witness motivation by inspiration. There is a buzz in the air. Individuals and teams are innovating, displaying enthusiasm and optimism about their work. In lower-energy organizations, we see motivation by tasks and timelines. There is a sense of busy-ness, but little excitement about the business of the group.
In this article, we will examine the role of energy in leadership, including the novel perspectives of a military Special Operations leader who has lived leadership on the battlefield and in the boardroom.
Leadership As Focused, Directed Energy
When we examine the writings of those who have worked extensively with leaders and organizations, the energy factor pops up repeatedly. Tom Peters, in his book The Little Big Things, explains that “the ‘business’ of leaders at all levels is to help those in their charge develop beyond their dreams” (emphasis mine). Consider what this means: the effective leader perceives strengths and potentials that may be invisible to team members. Such leadership is more than instrumental; it is grounded in a vision. It transforms.
Indeed, in the literature on leadership, vision is a recurring and powerful theme. Blanchard and Stoner, in their book Full Steam Ahead, observe that vision begins with a sense of “significant purpose.” Leadership is effective, they find, when it is grounded in a “compelling vision” that is “inspiring” and that “touches the hearts and spirits of everyone.” Notice that last word. Everyone. The vision, the energized sense of what can be, becomes an organizational glue.
Zenger and Folkman, in the Harvard Business Review, share the results of a research project that examined 33 innovative leaders. Among the key findings were “excellent strategic vision” conveyed “vividly”; the ability to “inspire and motivate through action”; and a focus on “upward communication…projecting optimism, full of energy, and always receptive to new ideas.” Significantly, they observed that in the organizations led by the innovators “grimness was replaced with kidding and laughter.” The energized organization bubbles over, not only with enthusiasm, but with humor and collaboration.
How Leadership Energizes Our Emotional Functioning
Consider burned out professionals. Overwhelmed with tasks and responsibilities, they feel drained of energy and initiative. Most of us know all too well what that state is like: to be so overloaded that any next piece of effort—no matter how routine and simple—seems like a mountain to climb. When I first encountered burned out professionals in the finance world, I was struck by the ways in which their state impacted their work. They completed needed chores and met necessary timelines, but it was the creative and inquisitive areas of their work that suffered. They no longer gathered extra data to generate that fresh trading idea. They stopped holding stimulating, challenging meetings with colleagues and fell much more easily into consensus thinking. The rigor of their risk management suffered: instead of anticipating threats to their portfolios, they found themselves reacting to market changes.
In short, the burned out portfolio managers retained their basic functioning, but the distinctive traits and competencies that made them successful receded into the background. They went from great to good.
From my perspective, the implications were profound: We need a full complement of energy to access our strengths. Only when we are fully energized do we become fully capable of being the best versions of ourselves.
One of the key insights from Jesse Lyn Stoner in the Full Steam Ahead book is that, “If you are clear about your vision, and if you are honest about your present realities, you don’t have to figure everything out.” Once we clearly perceive the gap between our real situation and our ideal one, we don’t need to push ourselves to take the right steps. Rather, we find ourselves drawn toward the compelling future. Great leaders don’t motivate people. They provide energizing experiences that enable people to tap into their visionary capacities.
Effective leadership plugs people into ever more powerful energy sockets. Emotionally energized, we transcend mere functioning. We go from burnout to burning flame. The mission statement of any organization is only a piece of paper unless and until it is felt and experienced on a daily basis, drawing us to our strengths. In providing team members with new, powerful experiences of themselves, effective leaders achieve what Peters observed: the ability to tap into hidden strengths and capacities.
How Leadership Energizes Our Cognitive Functioning
This energized sense of mission and enhanced experience of self enables ordinary people to team up and accomplish extraordinary things. While we readily appreciate how leadership can inspire in the emotional sense, we’re less likely to recognize the ways in which leadership energizes us as decision makers and action takers. We intuitively recognize that leaders stir the heart. What we tend to overlook is that leaders equally enrich the brain.
Few people recognize this better than Jonathan Fussell, a retired US Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander who, after 20 years with some of our nation’s most elite military units (Naval Special Warfare and Joint Special Operations Command), transitioned to the world of finance and management consulting. When I recently asked Commander Fussell to describe some of the key lessons he learned as a combat leader that also pertain to the business world, he mentioned something I did not expect: “the effective use of bandwidth” and “a deep understanding of the planning cycle.”
According to Fussell, while the cycle of planning, rehearsing, executing, and reviewing occurs over weeks and even months in most organizations, our nation’s elite military units routinely compress this cycle into days and often hours. Recognizing their limited bandwidth, leaders operating with such time constraints must actively and proactively engage team members to process the right information at the right time. “Great combat leaders,” Fussell explains, “shape an environment that allows the team to effectively disseminate the intelligence that is needed within the available bandwidth.” It is in this energized “shaping of the battle space” that the roots of a team’s collective, strategic vision—and the empowerment of its members—form.
Where average leaders are “spinning up” in anticipation of the next mission, Fussell points out, effective leaders are “planning” by anticipating situations and responding quickly to evolving realities. Operating at an energized “battle rhythm”, leaders and their teams experience “hundreds even thousands of repetitions over a career.” In other words, effective leadership creates an enriched learning environment, accelerating the deliberate practice that generates performance expertise. We often hear of micromanagers, Fussell observes, but “the term ‘microleader’ does not exist.” Leaders lead, not just with vision, but with foresight—and by engaging the strengths of team members in flexibly implementing plans as battle conditions evolve.
The key takeaway is that effective leadership transforms people emotionally, but also cognitively. In the environment energized by the right leadership, we tap into hidden strengths and become better versions of ourselves: seeing more, doing more, learning more. Whether we’re operating on the trading floor, in the corporate suite, or on a military mission, it is the energy of leadership that enables us to move to a faster battle rhythm.